The Change of British Trade Unions Since 1997


ABSTRACT: The history witnessed a dramatic decline of British Trade union from 1979 to 1997 and the following change since 1997:some British Trade unions, such as at sales and customers sectors, have grown in both the numbers and industrial influence, whilst other unions have suffered membership decline and a loss of collective bargaining strength during the same period. Many studies have been proposed to explain these phenomena. After analyzing the decline of Trade unions from 1979 to 1997, this paper proposes that this change is mainly influenced by the re-bounce of the political climate change in UK after 1997, when a “New Labour” government was erected in 1997. Besides, the inhomogeneous structure of Trade unions and the structure of society in UK account for the different change for the Trade unions since 1997. Last, the increase in the proportion of UK employees exists in the public sector will cause more total union membership.


Trade unions originated in medieval Europe and became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution. Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Webb 1894) described Trade union as “a continuous association of wage earners combined for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives”. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines a trade union organization as:

An organization of employees usually associated beyond the confines of one enterprise, established for protecting or improving through collective action, the economic and social status of its members.

In both definitions, one can see that Trade union is a union formed when individuals related through employment organize themselves together to form a group that will safeguard their interests as workers. Normally, Trade union organizations are composed of individual workers, professionals, or the unemployed. The common purpose of these organizations is “maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment”. Specifically, the main objectives of trade union include: “(1) protect the interest of workers and the management; to evade industrial disagreements or conflicts and enhance good relations ; (3) to create and develop the growth of democracy in the industries” (The long period of Trade Union decline is over 2010). In addition, Trade unions also provide collective bargaining for employees.

In the history the Trade unions in UK have developed for more than 200 years and had a big turning in 1979. However, recently, it has been observed that some British Trade unions have grown in both membership numbers and industrial influence since 1997, whilst other unions have suffered membership decline and a loss of collective bargaining strength during the same period.

To resolve this problem, it is necessary to trace back to the history of Trade unions in UK. In the following, one will first check the depression of Trade unions at UK in 1979, which was bloomed after World War II. Then, after demonstrating the change after 1997, one would like to regard the 1997’s change as one re-bounce of the 1979’s decline. However, expect the main dynamics for this change, other factors also need to be considered to explain such a change.

Even though Trade unions in Britain have fast grown after World War II, on most measures of their power and effectiveness, UK Trade unions have experienced a serious decline in both absolute and relative value from the time of the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979. The decline for Trade union is multifaceted. First, the Trade union membership has decreased dramatically. From the historical data about the trade union membership in UK from 1982 to 2010 (Achur 2011), it can be found that the membership levels reached their peak in 1979 and declined sharply through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, but stabilized somewhat from the mid 1990’s. Union membership in the UK was at an historic high-point of 13.2 million in 1979. However, by the time that Labour returned in 1997, it had fallen to just 7.8 million. The figure now stands at around 7.7 million (Achur, 2010).

Secondly, the union density and the numbers of listed unions also demonstrated a similar trend. Some other studies have confirmed the change of trends in union membership and its structure from 1978 to 1991(Certification Office (1979-1993) 1994; Home Office (1979-93) 1994; Trades Union Congress (1979-1993) 1994; Farnham and Giles1995). For example, one can see the number of the listed trade unions dropped from 398 in 1979 and 433 in 1981 to 276 in 1991. Meanwhile, the number of Trades Union Congress (TUC) affiliates also decreases from 112 in 1978 to 72 in 1991.

Many researchers have studied the turndown at 1979 (Machin 2000) and proposed several explanations on it, but the main reason is attributed to the political reason. When Thatcher was elected to Prime Minister in 1979, British government passed new union legislation. It was largely regarded as a direct response to the actions of trade unions during the Winter of Discontent of the previous year (Trade Union and Labor Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992). Furthermore, the successive governments of this political stripe also pursued a legislative program that placed legal restrictions on Trade unions’ ability to engage in industrial action, and that privatized many areas of the public sector, while managing the public sector in an anti-union fashion. Therefore, during this period, while Trade union membership declined markedly, the majority of sectoral collective agreements in the private sector were dismantled as companies abandoned them.

Another reason lies in the changes in the structure of the workforce in UK (Blanchflower and Bryson 2008). Blanchflower and Bryson thought that the negative union effects on the employment growth and financial performance are mainly restricted to the 1980s. In addition, they also pointed out that managerial perceptions of the climate of relations between managers and workers have deteriorated since the early 1980s across the whole private sector. Thus, these factors will influence the workers beliefs and their needs on the Trade unions and accordingly change the numbers of Trade unions members and the density in the UK.

From above analysis, it can be found that the political change in the UK is the main reason for the decline of British Trade unions after 1979. Moreover, this mechanism for such change is like such a case: a compressed spring will expand, once constrain on it is released. Accordingly, under the strict rules of Thatcher’s Conservative government, the development of the Trade unions has been declined and constrained largely. But when the new Labor government came, the Trade unions will expand shortly and reach a new age due to the release of the political restrain.

Since 1997, the Trade unions have experienced an apparent change. In overall, the Trade unions have stopped the markedly decrease since 1979, but became a relative stabilized process. Next, for example, from some data one can see a union density distribution for UK employees by gender (Achur 2011). For example, the union density for UK male employees in 1995 was 35.0% while for females was 29.7%. In 2010 trade union density for men fell further by 1.4% compared with 2009, whilst for females it fell by 0.1% (Achur 2011). From the data obtained by Labor Force Survey (LFS) (Achur 2011), one can see the Trade unions density is stable for women, but a slight drop for men. In addition, in Achur’s receent report, he also pointed out that there is almost no decline for the women membership since 1995 (Achur 2011).

The utmost factor for above changes on the Trade unions in the UK is its political climate change after 1997. A “New Labour” government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, was elected in 1997. This change of the political structure in the government offered a moderately conciliatory approach to the Trade unions because the use of legal individual employment rights to protect workers was the fundamental of the Blair government’s approach to employment relations.

Under such circumstance, apparently these policies matched the Trade unions’ interest and encouraged more workers join in the Trade unions. Many of these legal rights emanated from the level of European Union, and the post-1997 period saw a marked increase in the influence of legal regulation in the employment relationship. For example, most notably, a national minimum wage was introduced to protect the benefits of the employees. Actually, while capturing the power in 1997, New Labour has implemented many political promises to improve the employment rights of British workers, including the minimum wage and protection against unfair dismissal. It is not surprising that from this discussion, one can regard the process after 1997 a re-bounce of the Thatcher’s Conservative government since 1979.

Second, the different response for the change of the political climate lies in the inhomogeneous structure of Trade unions and the structure of society in the UK. Even the TUC has not split or fractured in the point of views of politics or religion. For Trade unions, but, different ideological confederations are commonplace. In the first place, the Trade unions come from different industries, which have a different economic status currently, one has to admit the existence of the inhomogeneous political and industrial views of all British unions. Thus, the variety of these views caused the different behaviours of Trade unions and influenced their development. As of 2009, the UK system of industrial relations would appear to exhibit a mixture of characteristics. This is demonstrated the change of unions in private and public sectors as well as the different industries. Illustrated by Achur (Achur 2011) is the change in Trade union density by occupation (percentage point change from 2002 to 2010). The data clearly depict the change of Trade union in different industries. Even though for most industries, such as process, plant and machine operatives, the decline is apparent and up to -7%, some sectors, such as sales and customers and personal services, have a POSITIVE increase. That could be due to the dramatic increase in these fields recently. Some technology innovation in Internet and e-business could be utilized to help understand this trend. However, the mechanism is not clear and out of the research of this paper. Second, the change is related to the different area. For example, Alex and John described such change as a change on the patterns of membership. They noticed some change of employees in Britain, and Northern Ireland, the self-employed and those not in employment as well (Bryson and Forth 2010). Such geographic factors should be considered in analyzing the change of Trade unions in the UK.

Last, it has been noticed the change of Trade unions between the private and public sectors. In the last decade, an increase in the proportion of UK employees exists in the public sector, where has a much higher union membership than private sector. Hence, this trend will cause more total union membership.

As for the collective agreement coverage, similarly one can find collective agreement coverage has also a slight drop from 1996 to 2010 (Achur 2011).

In a world, the history saw a dramatic decline of Trade union from 1979 to 1997 and the change of British Trade unions since 1997. After analyzing decline of Trade unions between 1979 and 1997, this paper proposes that this change mainly is influenced by the re-bounce of the political climate change in the UK after 1997, when a “New Labor” government, led by Prime Minister Blair, was erected in 1997. Besides, the inhomogeneous structure of Trade unions and the structure of society in the UK account for the different changes of the Trade unions. Last, the increase in the proportion of UK employees exists in the public sector will cause more total union memberships. All reasons be utilized to explain the change of Trade unions in the UK: some British Trade unions such as sales and customers sector in have grown and in industrial influence since 1997, whilst other unions have suffered membership decline and a loss of collective bargaining strength, during the same period.



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